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Does Talking to Attractive Women Make Men Dumber?

How coming face-to-face with a potential partner affects intelligence.

Volt Collection/Shutterstock
Source: Volt Collection/Shutterstock

In our book, The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships, we review the importance of an intelligent romantic partner to both men and women. Research shows that when asked to rank important traits, both men and women rank intelligence as more important than good looks, especially when considering a long-term partner (Buss et al., 2001; Lippa, 2007). Women also rate intelligence as important for short-term partnerships (Prokosch et al., 2009); men value intelligence more in cultures with more equal gender norms (Lippa). Interestingly, heterosexual men and lesbian women appear to value intelligence more than gay males and straight females (Lippa).

Can We Accurately Judge Intelligence?

A range of evidence shows that perceivers can quickly and accurately judge the intelligence of a target person. For example, Zebrowitz et al. (2002) found that college students accurately estimated the intelligence of people using still photographs, and Prokosch et al. (2009) found that women accurately perceived men’s intelligence based on short video clips. In both studies, IQ scores were used to evaluate the accuracy of the perceivers’ judgments. Interestingly, perceived physical attractiveness was also positively correlated with IQ scores, suggesting that physical attractiveness may be an important cue we use to judge intelligence (Zebrowitz et al.). In both of the research projects noted here, women accurately judged men’s intelligence through photographs and videos—but what happens when men and women meet in person?

Men Become Temporarily Less Intelligent when Talking to Attractive Women in Person

Karremans et al. (2009) asked research participants to engage in conversations about neutral topics. The students were randomly assigned to interact with either a same-sex or opposite-sex partner. Cognitive performance was assessed both before and after the interactions using demanding working memory and attention tasks. Men’s performance on these tasks declined significantly after interacting with a woman (relative to the same-sex condition), and even more so after interacting with an attractive woman. Women’s cognitive performance stayed consistent regardless of whether they interacted with a same or other sex individual—and regardless of the attractiveness of the other individual. More recent research suggests that even just anticipating interacting with a woman whose physical attractiveness is unknown can impair men’s cognitive performance (Nauts et al., 2012).

Why Do Men Become Less Intelligent?

The authors suggest that men’s performance may decline in such situations because they might be preoccupied with their sexual interest in a woman and may be actively trying to impress a potential partner (Karremans et al., 2009). A variety of research shows that across situations men are more likely to overestimate women’s sexual interest in them (Levesque et al., 2006; Stillman & Maner, 2009; Perilloux et al., 2012).

So What’s a Man to Do?

First, we must acknowledge the specific details of the research illustrating men’s "cognitive decline": Men and women were asked to perform working memory and attention tasks (Karremans et al., 2009—but these types of tasks don’t come up on a typical first date or in-person meeting. Second, there is currently no evidence to suggest that these cognitive declines last over the long term. It is very likely that after spending time with an attractive women, men’s cognitive capabilities will return to their full strength. Third, if you are very concerned about appearing intelligent, you can delay an in-person meeting until you have sufficiently convinced the other individual that you are intelligent—perhaps through social media or email. Keep in mind: Intelligence can be displayed in a variety of ways, such as a good sense of humor, spatial skills, or fluent speech.

Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.


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